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Future of the Montana Hi-Line

Near Rudyard, Montana
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The Hi-Line region of Montana is truly a unique part of the United States. The problem is, few people know it. Moreover, current society trends (people want to live in the mountains, on the ocean or in a big city - not in the prairie) are working against these towns efforts to draw in new people and businesses. Moreover, the lack of employment prospects in many Hi-Line towns ultimately lead many native residents to leave the area in search of better careers elsewhere in Montana or outside the state altogether.

These challenges, among many others, are some the Hi-Line communities face in the years ahead. And they are far from easy challenges to overcome. Yet the future of the Montana Hi-Line is hardly a completely bleak one. There are portions of the Hi-Line region that strike me as having most of the necessary building blocks in place, either by luck or be design, to allow for future economic growth and arresting the decline in population that has been occurring. Let’s take a look at some of the things that may, in the future, propel the Hi-Line region along.

Energy Development

It is no secret that the US faces a severe energy shortage in the years ahead. The energy shortage will not just be seen in crude oil, but also in natural gas and electricity. While the Hi-Line regions gas and oil wells are slowly going into declining production, the story is the same throughout most of the United States now, too. Moreover, since most of the new electricity generating plants are now powered by natural gas, as prices for natural gas creep upward in the years ahead due to higher demand, a new power source for the creation of electricity will need to be created to keep prices affordable, enhance the environment and to keep up with ever growing electrical demand.

And for this, oddly, the Hi-Line region is almost ideally placed. In many areas of Canada and Europe right now, a building boom is going on. The building boom isn’t of new buildings, or factories or subdivisions. Instead, this boom is the building and operation of wind farms. Wind energy has finally arrived, due to technological innovations, as a viable power source. It is now being successfully used in many countries to generate much needed electricity that is also, happily, environmentally friendly.

Plowing the Fields on the Hi-Line
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The Hi-Line region is perfectly suited to capture the inevitable rising demand for wind energy. As wind farms are best built in places that are remote and windy, the rise of wind energy holds huge potential for development along the Hi-Line. New jobs will be created during the construction of these wind farms and more jobs will be created for the servicing and maintenance of these wind farms – all of which should be well paying.

While many factors will need to come to play to have this scenario work out, ultimately the rise of wind energy holds tremendous potential for the growth in jobs and incomes along the Hi-Line region.

Agriculture

The Hi-Line industry will continue to be dominated by agriculture in the near and probably the long-term future. There is just simply no escaping the agricultural nature of this area. However, while agricultural consolidation is likely to continue to some degree in future years, it does seem the loss of people working farms and ranches has slowed down considerably recently.

Moreover, although there still may be some small losses of population who actually work in the agriculture industry in the Hi-Line region, the agricultural industry in general seems poised for solid and sustained growth in the future. This will be good news for the Hi-Line towns, as the farms and ranches will be on solid financial footing. While this may not lead to any more new jobs in the Hi-Line towns, it will, at a minimum, help arrest the loss of population and the continuing erosion of businesses.

The reason I think agriculture is posed for a good future is due to several factors. First, the world has a growing population, and has less and less land available for cultivation of agricultural crops. This will lead to increased demand for food.

Secondly, the value of the US dollar is likely to continue to decline for many years. While the decline will be neither swift nor steady, in general, the value of the US dollar relative to other world’s currencies is almost certain to decline in the future. While this is bad news for people who buy things at Wal-Mart (where most of the goods for sale are made in foreign markets) or who buy gas at the local gas station (the gas comes from overseas markets), it is great news for farmers here at home. This is so because the decline in value of the US dollar makes agricultural exports to foreign countries more competitive. As much of the food grown in Montana eventually ends up overseas, a decline in value of the US dollar will allow US food exports to gain an increasing market share of overseas food markets. Conversely, the decline in the US dollar makes food imports to the United States that much more expensive – once again benefiting US farms and ranches.

Courting Retirees

It is no secret that the demographics of the United States is shifting. The age of the population will be progressively getting older and older, with more and more retirees.

While this is unlikely to be a “boom” to the Hi-Line region, it does seem reasonable to expect some retirees to seek out the quiet, safe, clean towns of the Hi-Line region. True, the bulk of retirees are likely to either stay where they are now or venture to places down south. However, the towns on the Hi-Line really do offer a certain type of retiree a perfect place to retire; retirees just need to be "educated" to the fact. Virtually all towns on the Hi-Line region, regardless of size, have a senior citizen center. The cost of housing, often a crucial consideration, is also far less expensive than found elsewhere in the United States. And while hospitals and medical services are not located in every town, they are usually no more than a forty minute drive away from all but the most remote regions of the Hi-Line.

Promotion of Small Town Life

Downtown Chester, Montana
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Many towns on the Montana Hi-Line have changed little over the years. While some of the towns have indeed gone backwards as far as population loss goes, other towns have at least been able to maintain their population.

Because of this lack of growth, many towns on the Hi-Line seem virtually unchanged. Outside of Havre, strip mall developments, big box retail stores, sprawling subdivisions, traffic jams and other inconveniences of modern city life are non-existent. Because of this, people who are seeking out a place to raise a family in a small, quiet town that is not hampered by big city problems (and big city prices), will find much to like in many Hi-Line towns.

In particular, I think the county seats of each county, such as Chinook, Chester, Shelby and Glasgow, are well set to attract families seeking a true small-town life in the future. These small towns have pleasant downtowns, tree-lined streets and all the basics that one needs in terms of shopping. Havre, the largest town on the Hi-Line, is also set for future growth due to its diversified economy.

Of one potential help to these towns is the Internet. The Internet and modern communications really do allow many people to work anywhere they want and still make a living. The towns on the Hi-Line, by taking advantage of their small town flavor and advantages, have a strong sales pitch they can make to families who have independent income sources who are seeking a high quality of life in a low-cost small town that hasn’t yet been ruined by unending strip mall and subdivision development.

Of course, there are some big challenges to overcome in this regard. Countless towns throughout the United States are competing for these types of families and people, so Hi-Line towns will have their work cut out for them in attracting them. But it can be done, especially if the town itself is clean, well-kept up, has quality schools, retains an affordable cost of living and, crucially, is fully wired up for modern communications.

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